With a country so staunchly committed to secularism, French Muslim women are facing even more thinly veiled Islamophobia.
The New York Times reports that David Lisnard, the mayor of Cannes controversially banned people from swimming at public beaches in clothing that is not “respectful of good morals and secularism” or which does not adhere to “rules of hygiene and security.” I.e. Muslim women adorned in a loose-fitted burqa made of nylon to act as a swimsuit, also known as a burkini.
Although they are mainly worn by Muslim women for modesty reasons, it was widely reported by The Daily Mail and The Guardian when celeb chef, Nigella Lawson, wore one to protect her skin from the sun.
In an order issued by Cannes mayor, the reasoning behind the ban is that swimwear with a definite religious affiliation is likely to create risks to public order. A public order that has become extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks in the last few years considering the mass killings of Charlie Hebdo employees, the Paris shootings, the Nice beachfront truck attack on civilians celebrating Bastille Day, and the most recent slaying of a priest in Normandy.
But should secularism be allowed to curtail religious freedoms and expressions to “protect” a nation? Even when its risk is but speculative?
A fine of 38 euros (R 567) would be given to anyone who doesn’t comply with this new law. But how will this be reinforced? And how is this any different from Iran’s morality police?
Prof Shireen Hassim of the University of the Witwatersrand says the ban on the burkini renders Muslims as alien to the ‘European way of life’. “Of course it is true that women’s bodies are always and everywhere policed, whether this is by individual men exercising patriarchal power over their daughters and wives, or by states that prescribe appropriate clothing for women, or indeed by the fashion industry and the norms it perpetuates about beauty. That much seems obvious. But this particular ban on the burkini cannot be read outside of a context on intense Islamophobia.
In an interview with a Cannes city paper, Nice-Matin, Lisnard commented that he was not banning all religious attire on beaches. Muslim women will still be allowed to wear the veil, Jewish men the kippa and the Christian cross may also stay.
French Muslims face constant disrespect from the French “Republic”. It already has a nationwide burqa ban which prohibits women from wearing full-face veils in public spaces.
A 2004 law famously banned the wearing of headscarves in French public schools, and in April 2016 French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, suggested that headscarves be eradicated as well. The Guardian notes that the PM’s main reason for decision is that the French do not associate Islam with the values of the Republic.
The Guardian reports that Thierry Migoule , who is the head of municipal services for the town said that they are only banning the wear of “ostentatious clothing which refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements which are at war with us.”
So if you do the maths, it looks something like this: burqa + bikini = burkini = an ostentatious symbol of allegiance to a terrorist organisation?
I call bullshit, Mr Migoule.
The mayor insists that he is setting this ban in order to protect these Muslim women.
“If a woman goes swimming in a burkini, that could draw a crowd and disrupt public order,” Mr. Lisnard said. “It is precisely to protect these women that I took this decision. The burkini is the uniform of extremist Islamism, not of the Muslim religion.”
Resorts along the French Riviera has followed suit, banning burkinis from their beaches. Some even claiming it is because of “sanitary reasons”. Now I ask you, how is a g-string more sanitary than a burqa? Or a pair of crummy board shorts? Are topless (European) women more sanitary? Babies in diapers? How on earth is a burkini unsanitary?
According to The Independent, Lionnel Luca, the mayor of Villeneuve-Loubet, has said that in France (and no, unfortunately, sanctioning what women wear and where they are allowed to wear it is not only restricted to the French Riviera) you are not supposed to dress to display your religious convictions. He added: “especially as they are false convictions that the religion does not demand.”
So what about Catholics wearing prominent crosses around their necks? Again a claim that is completely unfounded. One that suggests women have no agency when it comes to what they wear. Does he equate a burkini with the uniform worn by ISIS?
Indian author Arundhati Roy argues that it's al about coercion. It is an act of cultural imperialism and, in fact, violence against women to tell her what to or what not to wear.
And the virus of unsubstantiated terror fears is spreading. Aljazeera notes that a 3rd town in France has banned burkinis from its public beaches. Ange-Pierre Vivoni, the mayor of Sisco on the island of Corsica says his people feel “provoked by things like that”. Adding that that this was a noble way to get rid of “Islamist fundamentalists" on the island.
Now, policing women’s bodies is not a new thing, especially when we consider how it is insulted and become part of the carnage of war. But here it is utilised to win an ideological war.
“The attitude of these French legislators runs completely counter to their supposed liberal attachment to individual liberty and choice. They seem to be arguing that women who wear burkinis are not exercising choice over their clothing, that they are dupes of their culture. On the other hand, non-Muslim women are peculiarly seen to have agency. They supposedly are free of these patriarchal controls or norms about what is socially acceptable dress. This is at best a contradiction in the French legislators' thinking and at worst, it seems that they are racist in their thinking about women,” says Prof Shireen Hassim.
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